A Look into Lakewood

This Week: A Chat with Rabbi Mayer Shimon Kalmanowitz and Rabbi Chaim Borenstein of Kupas Yom Tov

By Simmy Horwitz

With all of the wonderful aspects to anticipate about any upcoming Yom Tov, perhaps the one facet of our joyous holidays that is not so exciting is the financial strain that many families feel (that, and squeezing with too many family members into too small of a house for three straight days). For many, the wherewithal to provide all of the multi-faceted Yom Tov needs is difficult to obtain; for others, it’s simply impossible.

Even for families that can live happily off of a very limited income, or pull their belt buckles a little bit tighter and manage until the end of the month, Yom Tov can often tip the scale in a way that places financial stability just out of reach.

While devoted individuals all around our community have noted this fact and stepped up to provide help to their fellow brothers and sisters, Kupas Yom Tov is an organization that might seem the same…but is very, very different.

This week, in advance of the festive Yom Tov of Pesach, two of Kupas Yom Tov’s founders and prominent members of our community, Rabbi Mayer Shimon Kalmanowitz and Rabbi Chaim Borenstein, spent time telling us a little bit more about their incredible initiative.

Yated: In a nutshell, how would you describe the work of Kupas Yom Tov?

Rabbi Mayer Shimon Kalmanowitz: Kupas Yom Tov looks to provide assistance for tzarchei Yom Tov for Lakewood yungeleit. We run our campaign twice a year: before Pesach and before Sukkos. We’re not an official organization; everything is run by a group of individuals who are just interested in doing whatever they can to help out yungeleit.

The main aspect of our work is that nobody involved – from the organizational side to the donation and recipient end – has the feeling of “This is a rachmanus.” We are not helping yungeleit make Yom Tov because we feel sorry for them or we pity them, chas v’shalom. Rather, we look towards the yungeleit of our community as pillars of Torah, pillars of klal Yisrael: choshuve role models whom we have the privilege to join with in a partnership to make Yom Tov.

Rabbi Chaim Borenstein: These are the true feelings of everyone involved: it’s a zechus to be a part of Kupas Yom Tov, to have the opportunity to partner with these notable bnei Torah as Yom Tov approaches.

Y: It’s certainly true that Yom Tov is an expensive time of year, but big expenses crop up throughout the year. How did Kupas Yom Tov choose these times specifically to run their campaigns?

MSK: One thing that’s important to note is that the majority of our recipients are able to support themselves fully throughout the year. These are Torah families, that in whatever way they can, are managing to earn enough to make it through a typical month. It’s only as Yom Tov draws close that they enter into an emergency situation because the expenses for Pesach and Sukkos are really above and beyond what they can manage.

CB: Aside from the financial help needed at this time of year, we also want these yungeleit and their families to be able to enter Yom Tov with menuchas hanefesh. Who more than someone immersed in Torah all day and night deserves to be able to enjoy these special times of year?

When the physical needs are taken care of, these spiritually connected families are then able to focus on the truly important aspects of each Yom Tov, which is exactly what they should be able to do.

MSK: The other reason that Kupas Yom Tov chose specifically this time of year dates back to its original founding, which occurred two years ago.

Y: What happened then to spark this initiative?

CB: Two years ago, on Yud Beis Adar – just before Purim – there was a double tragedy in Lakewood. Two levayas were held on the same day: one for Rav Shlomo Zalman Rosengarten z”l, who was a choshuve yungerman, and one for Eli Raitzik a”h, a young boy. Both of these niftarim left a huge impact and right away, we knew that we wanted to do something l’illui nishmasam. Since Pesach was approaching, this seemed like a natural choice for a way to honor their neshamos. After that first season, everyone wanted to continue and relaunch the campaign for Sukkos.

Y: It must have been received with a positive response, if everyone wanted to continue. What kind of feedback did you hear during that first Pesach season?

MSK: Baruch Hashem, the response was incredible! It honestly blew us away. There was an immediate warm reception within the walls of the yeshiva and from many outside the yeshiva, as well.

It was a very emotional time for the families of the niftarim especially, and they really warmly reached out, sending donations and a lot of letters, expressing their hakaras hatov for the initiative. Many others who felt connected to Rav Rosengarten and Eli also reached out during that first campaign.

It might be possible to think that as time went on, the response would cool off, but b’chasdei Hashem, the kupah has only continued to grow every season.

CB: In addition to the special niftarim – and all of this is in their zechus – people really feel connected to the mission of the organization. We hang a lot of posters around yeshiva, and they all state that these are “Our Yungeleit, Our Achrayus and Our Kupah,” and we see that many people really do feel that way. They’re willing to show it by opening their wallet to whatever degree they can.

Y: Are the posters hanging around yeshiva meant to encourage yungeleit to join the cause in terms of donations or simply awareness? Our community holds yungeleit in the highest esteem, but most people wouldn’t think to approach that specific crowd when looking for large donations.

MSK: We actually look first towards the yungeleit specifically. It might sound unusual, but we want to provide the opportunity not just to the broader community, but precisely towards the ones who are sitting together in the beis medrash with those that will receive the help.

The idea was to create a sense of camaraderie, of helping each other. Who better to help than your own chavrusa, your own fellow chabura member or your own neighbor in the beis medrash?

CB: And baruch Hashem, we have really seen that this has happened! There has been a tremendous mindset shift within the yeshiva in the past few years. People started thinking about each other in more direct terms.

The way that we receive names for donations is through recommendations from friends in the beis medrash; yungeleit are approaching us about their friends, they’re truly thinking about each other in a specific, help-oriented way.

MSK: Not only that, but they really feel an achrayus to give. I can’t tell you how many yungeleit who are on our list to receive support are themselves giving support! They might not be giving the same amount that they are getting, but they feel the responsibility to give what they can.

Y: Wow, that is truly awe-inspiring. At this point, how many yungeleit are you able to help before Yom Tov?

MSK: Every season the kupah has grown bigger and baruch Hashem, we are able to add numbers every time.

The first year, we received close to an amazing $100,000, which was more than we ever could have expected. By Sukkos, when we launched for our second time, we raised $150,000. Every season the kupah has received about $50,000 more than the season before, so this Pesach, we are hopeful that the final number will be around $250,000.

At this point, we are able to help over 500 yungeleit, baruch Hashem.

Y: Today, you have a major operation on your hands. Was this what you envisioned when you founded it? And where do you see Kupas Yom Tov going in the future?

CB: We could never have dreamed that it would turn into something so tremendous! It really goes to show how supportive the yungeleit and the whole community are of partnering with bnei Torah in preparing for Yom Tov. This is truly something that many people feel connected to and want to be a part of.

We hope that with Hashem’s help we continue to grow, so that we can add more families to our list to receive assistance and so that we can increase the amount of help that each yungerman receives. Our goal is that all of our town’s noble families should be able to look forward to a Yom Tov with only feelings of excitement.